Merlino springs $200m demand on Canberra for quarantine facility

The federal government was kept in the dark about Victoria’s plans for its purpose-built quarantine facility, which is entirely contingent on $200 million of Commonwealth funding.

Acting Premier James Merlino announced on Thursday morning that the state would invest $15 million to begin designing and planning a 500-bed quarantine facility to house returned travellers on federal land in Mickleham.

The quarantine facility would be based on the Howard Springs facility in the Northern Territory.

Ahead of Thursday morning’s announcement, federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told RN Radio that he spoke to state Treasurer Tim Pallas a few days ago but nothing was said about the quarantine facility.

“He didn’t raise that specific issue with me,” Mr Frydenberg said. “No doubt there will be discussions between state and federal government on quarantine for a long time to come.”

A well-placed source aware of the quarantine facility planning, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the talks were private, said state officials had said throughout the negotiations that the Victorian government would probably pay for the capital and operating costs of the facility.

“It’s just bizarre,” the source said.

The empty paddock where the Victorian government wants to build a quarantine facility.Credit:Joe Armao

Opposition leader Michael O’Brien, who has been calling for Victoria to move hotel quarantine out of the CBD, slammed the government’s announcement as a “hoax”.

“They’ve simply said they want the federal government to build a quarantine facility on federal land with federal money,” Mr O’Brien said. “That’s not a state government announcement, that’s just getting out there with a begging bowl.”

In February, before he went on sick leave, Premier Daniel Andrews insisted that his government would be “more than just scoping [alternative quarantine], we are going to get on and build a facility”.

Mr Andrews announced Victoria’s intention to build cabin-style quarantine facility – similar to the federally run Howard Springs centre in the Northern Territory – after repeated leaks of COVID-19 from hotel quarantine. Outbreaks have also occurred from hotel quarantine in Perth and Brisbane.

A final decision on whether Victoria’s facility should be built won’t be made until September, and will be dependent on the coronavirus situation locally and globally, as well as the vaccine rollout, which has been beset by delays.

“The best time to start an alternative quarantine was 12 months ago, the next best time is now,” Mr Merlino said.

The nominated space is next to the existing Mickleham Post Entry Quarantine facility which is used by the federal Agriculture Department to quarantine animals including cats, dogs, horses, birds and bees for a minimum of 10 days after they arrive in the country.

The Mickleham site is a 25-minute drive from Melbourne Airport, next to the Hume Highway. The site was chosen based on its proximity to the airport, hospitals, the CBD and health hotels, in addition to having access to services and a workforce.

The site sits behind barbed wire on the fringe of Melbourne. Credit:Joe Armao

It would be designed with portable cabins and be able to accommodate 500 returned travellers at any one time, with the ability to scale up to 3000 beds within 22 months. The building cost would total $200 million, and a 3000-bed facility would cost up to $700 million, according to Mr Merlino.

State government departments will undertake the four-month design work while the Morrison government considers the proposal. If approved it could be open by the end of the year.

If the Commonwealth rejects the Mickleham proposal, the state would then investigate whether the facility could be built near the Avalon airport.

Avalon Airport chief executive Justin Giddings said: “We welcome the decision and stand ready to help out if the Mickleham facility doesn’t proceed.”

A federal government spokesperson said the Commonwealth was looking at the proposal.

“The Victorian government has submitted a highly detailed proposal for a possible quarantine facility in Melbourne. Our officials will now review that information and undertake the relevant assessments,” they said.
With the world unlikely to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic for at least the next three years, according to the government’s own business case, many Victorian businesses have been innovating and adapting to the new normal.

Ballarat-based SFI, a family business, has created “site entry hubs” that are used at dozens of construction and mining sites across the country.

The hubs, placed at the entrance of sites, take employees’ temperature, offer facial recognition, and dispense hand sanitiser and personal protective equipment – freeing up people who otherwise would have been required to do these jobs.

Nick Clare outside one of his COVID site entry hubs.Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

“Innovation has been at the heart of it,” SFI’s Nick Clare said.

“We can either lock down our business, or listen to our customers and provide what people need.”

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